Jeremy Hunt defends his actions on BSkyB

 

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt defended his conduct during News Corporation's takeover bid for BSkyB today as he battled for his political life amid demands for his resignation over claims that he was a "cheerleader" for Rupert Murdoch's company.

In a hastily-arranged statement to the House of Commons, Mr Hunt told MPs that he had handled the bid with "scrupulous fairness" and he was not influenced in any way by contacts with News Corp.

Prime Minister David Cameron - who met Hunt in private after yesterday's release of a dossier of emails detailing links between his office and News Corp executives - told the Commons that the Culture Secretary had "my full support for the excellent job that he does".

But the row claimed its first scalp, as special adviser Adam Smith quit, admitting his contact with News Corp "went too far".

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has called for Mr Hunt's resignation, said the affair has left "a shadow of sleaze" over the Government.

A 163-page dossier released by the Leveson Inquiry into media standards yesterday revealed scores of emails from News Corp executive Frederic Michel detailing his contacts with Mr Hunt's office during the bid process.

Labour said the emails showed Mr Hunt acted as a "back-channel" for the Murdochs, passed secret information to News Corp, and misled Parliament over the extent of his contacts with the company at a time when he held a quasi-judicial responsibility for determining whether the bid should go ahead.

But Lord Justice Leveson cautioned today against jumping to conclusions about the documents, telling the inquiry: "I am acutely aware from considerable experience that documents such as these cannot always be taken at face value, and can frequently bear more than one interpretation."

Mr Hunt told the Commons today that it was "categorically not the case" that the emails were evidence that a back channel existed for News Corp to influence his decision.

"They did not influence my decision in any way," he told MPs.

But he added: "The volume and tone of these communications were clearly not appropriate in a quasi-judicial process and today Adam Smith has resigned as my special adviser.

"Although Adam Smith accepts that he overstepped the mark on this occasion, I want to say on record that I believe he did so unintentionally."

Mr Hunt said he had requested the earliest possible date for him to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry to set out in full his version of events.

And he told MPs: "I am totally confident that when I present my evidence, the public will see that I conducted this process with scrupulous fairness throughout."

Mr Smith announced his resignation in a statement about an hour before Mr Hunt's appearance in the Commons.

Mr Michel told the inquiry yesterday that, while his emails made repeated reference to contacts with Mr Hunt, these in most cases actually involved communications with Mr Smith.

The special adviser said: "I do not recognise all of what Fred Michel said, but nonetheless I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department, contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary that this needed to be a fair and scrupulous process," Mr Smith said.

"Whilst I firmly believe that the process was, in fact, conducted scrupulously fairly, as a result of my activities it is only right for me to step down as special adviser to Jeremy Hunt."

Mr Cameron's official spokesman said the Prime Minister agreed with Mr Smith's decision to resign.

And Mr Hunt paid tribute to his adviser, telling MPs: "He did not believe he was doing anything more than giving advice on process.

"I believe him to be someone of integrity and decency and it is a matter of huge regret to me that this has happened."

Mr Hunt said that, as part of the process of considering whether the bid for BSkyB should be allowed to go ahead, he and his officials "engaged with News Corporation and its representatives as well as other interested parties - both supporters and opponents of the merger".

News Corp's attempt to buy the 61% of the satellite broadcaster which it did not already own was dropped in July 2011 before Mr Hunt reached his final decision, as a result of the furore surrounding allegations of phone-hacking at the company's News of the World newspaper.

Mr Hunt told MPs: "Throughout, I have strictly followed due process, seeking the advice of independent regulators - something I didn't have to do - and after careful consideration acting on their advice."

Fending off renewed demands from Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman for him to go, he said: "This is not the time to jump on a political bandwagon."

His statement came immediately after a raucous session of Questions to the Prime Minister, during which Mr Miliband accused Mr Cameron of putting his cronies at News Corp - including his former adviser and ex-Sun editor Andy Coulson and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks - ahead of the interests of the country.

"While his Culture Secretary remains in place, while he refuses to come clean on his and the Chancellor's meetings with Rupert Murdoch, the shadow of sleaze will hang over this Government," said the Labour leader.

"It's a pattern with this Prime Minister - Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks, and now the Culture Secretary... When is he going to realise it is time to stop putting his cronies before the interests of the country?"

But Mr Cameron responded: "In judging this important bid, the Culture Secretary sought independent advice from independent regulators at every stage, although he did not need to, and the Culture Secretary took that independent advice at every stage, although he did not need to.

"The way that the Culture Secretary has dealt with this issue is in stark contrast to the Government of which (Mr Miliband) was a member."

Labour said Mr Hunt was in breach of three different requirements of the ministerial code and called on Mr Cameron to refer the case to Sir Alex Allan, the Premier's independent adviser on the code.

The charges made by the Opposition concern:

:: Article 1.2(c) which says it is of "paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity."

It continues: "Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister";

:: Article 3.3 which says: "Individual ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers";

:: Article 9.1: "When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament".

Downing Street said the Cabinet Secretary had written, at Mr Cameron's request, to all Whitehall departments to remind them of the "rigorous process" for dealing with quasi-judicial cases.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said it made clear "that it is vitally important in dealing with these cases that all contacts with interested parties by ministers, officials and special advisers are carefully controlled and properly recorded so that the independence, integrity and impartiality of the process is upheld."

He was unable to say whether the guidelines in place, which vary from department to department, advised against the involvement of special advisers in such contacts.

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks